David Op’t Hof: A ‘herd immunity’ strategy would kill millions

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jennie McQueen working at a COVID-19 testing station at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Monday, Oct. 12, 2020.

COVID-19 is surging all over the United States and in many parts of the world. The case count in the U.S. rises by about 50,000 every day and the number of deaths rises by hundreds every day.

Despite the precautions that have been suggested Dr. Anthony Fauci and other experts for over six months, there is still great confusion and contention over the wearing of masks and other precautions.

Another group of experts has pushed the idea of “herd immunity” — that we just need to let people get the disease until our nation has enough people who have had the disease that there is no one else to spread to and the disease will just go away, as President Donald Trump has predicted.

I was curious as to what it would take to get to herd immunity. The numbers vary, but it seems that when about 60% of Americans have had COVID-19, we could see this herd immunity happen. I did a little simple math. The population of the United States is about 329.5 million people, so 60% of 329.5 million = 197.7 million. That’s how many people would have to get COVID-19 to reach that 60% herd immunity benchmark.

The death rate of COVID-19 in the United States is 2.8%, which I got from a chart called “COVID-19 Death Rates by Country.” That is a low percentage, by the way, compared to the death rates of other countries, one of the few numbers related to COVID-19 in which the United States is lower than other countries. If 2.8% of the people who get COVID-19 die, that means 5.5 million Americans would have to die to get to herd immunity. Please work this out to see for yourself if my math makes sense.

Is that an acceptable number to anybody? We just passed 200,000 COVID-19 deaths a few weeks ago and nobody seemed happy about it. The flu pandemic of 1918 took about 675,000 American lives and nobody was happy about that.

The terrorist attacks on 9/11 took about 3,000 American lives, and we were so unhappy about that we went to war against terrorism and have not stopped fighting to this day. But 5.5 million deaths to end this pandemic? Almost 6 million. That’s about how many Jews were killed in the Holocaust. Are we no better than the Nazis?

Yes, eventually we do want to get to herd immunity, like we have with polio and smallpox. But is just letting the disease spread unchecked a sensible way to get there? Obviously, we would want to have vaccines help us to get there. But from what I hear, many people will not take the vaccine when it is available. There is a lot of mistrust of vaccines right now, especially a fast-tracked COVID-19 vaccine.

In addition, the latest word is that the antibodies developed by survivors of COVID-19 seem to start declining after a few months. We don’t yet know if the antibodies will decline to an unprotective level; we haven’t studied the disease long enough to know that. But that the antibodies decline in just a few months is not a hopeful trend.

Consider, too, the impact on our health care professionals of just letting this horrible disease run unchecked. We have already seen, in Wuhan, China; Italy; New York; and New Jersey, the devastating impact on our front-line health care workers when they are overwhelmed by a spike in this deadly disease. It’s dangerous enough, but when your emergency room is overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients, safety precautions become difficult to follow. We have lost too many of our courageous health care workers to this disease already to let our hospitals get overrun again.

And when there are more patients than beds, we place health care workers in the heartbreaking situation of having to decide who lives and who dies. What is the main criterion for who gets treatment and who does not? How long will this patient likely live if they survive this disease? Sounds like older people would be most likely to not receive treatment. Some seem too willing to allow older Americans die from COVID-19; they’ve already lived their life.

“Let them die and decrease the surplus population.” That’s a paraphrase of Scrooge’s words to the two gentlemen asking for a Christmas donation for the poor. Is that us?

Which brings me to a very serious question: Why has the United States of America done so poorly in fighting against this pandemic? Poor leadership. Any leader worth his or her salt knows that the best way to lead is by example. And what example has been set for the people of America? Denial. Dismissiveness. Disdain. Delusion. Recklessness.

In the absence of leadership, what can we do if we want to prevent the deaths from COVID-19 from reaching into the millions? Follow the precautions! That will slow the spread, which will allow states to reopen, which will allow our economy to come back. We all must do our part.

David Op't Hof

David Op’t Hof, Lehi, is a retired educator who believes in the United States of America as the light of the world.

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